Germany Looks To Replace Nuclear Power

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Germany's decision to close its 17 nuclear power plants and invest more in alternative energy has been welcome by environmentalists. But business leaders are concerned by the prospects of power shortages and higher prices.

NORRIS: Germany is Europe's largest economy and it faces an enormous challenge with its recent decision to phase out all nuclear power by 2022. That decision came after the nuclear crisis in Japan. Germany now has a decade to try to replace the nuclear power that has provided nearly a quarter of its electricity.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Hamburg.

ERIC WESTERVELT: For the first time since World War II there's a hive of activity at the colossal 130-foot high concrete and steel air raid shelter that still stands menacingly in the Wilhelmsburg District of southern Hamburg. The British tried to blow the bunker up in 1947 - they failed. Its ceilings of 11- and-a-half feet of reinforced concrete withstood the huge glass of TNT.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEAVY MACHINERY)

WESTERVELT: Today, bulldozers and heavy equipment are gutting the insides of the gray, brutal-looking relic the size of a hotel. During Allied bombing raids, it provided shelters for 30,000 Hamburg residents.

SABINA METZGER: (Through Translator) It's certainly a spine-chilling place, this bunker, and its burdened with its history. But we're happy to be turning it into something positive.

WESTERVELT: That something, says Sabina Metzger, is renewable energy for part of Hamburg. Metzger is with the city-funded International Building Expo, or IBA. They're turning the former Luftwaffe bunker into one of Europe's largest solar energy plants. Massive solar panels will soon sit where anti-aircraft battery once stood.

The solar project will supply local residents with electricity, heat and hot water. Eventually the IBA hopes the energy bunker, as they call it, allows this part of Hamburg to unplug from the national grid and become energy self- sufficient. The city hopes to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Uli Hellweg, managing director of the IBA, argues that locally-produced energy from projects like this have the potential to speed up that process and enable inner-city districts to become 100 percent carbon neutral by 2045.

ULI HELLWEG: And with this regenerative plant and this bunker, we supply more than 3,000 households over the whole year with warm water and with heating. This is one example. Of course, we need time.

WESTERVELT: To reach the federal government's ambitious goal of having 35 percent of the country's electricity from renewable sources by 2020, experts say Germany has to invest heavily in ways to transfer the green energy from solar and wind farms into the energy grid, and then move the power to the population and industrial centers in the south of the country.

Although the government hasn't pinpointed the exact cost of the transformation, some analysts estimate that households could see their energy costs rise in the short term by 15 to 20 percent.

Industry is worried, too. The Federation of German Industries' Eberhard von Rotenburg(ph) says the fears are real that the phase-out of nuclear power will make Germany less competitive.

EBERHARD VON ROTENBURG: First, it's our concern that energy costs, electricity costs will rise in Germany beyond international competitiveness. Second, we have to build new infrastructure, so higher voltage grid and a distribution network. And third, we still need research and innovation concerning storage and also grid and smart technologies to cope with that new challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

WESTERVELT: Back at the energy bunker, Uli Hellweg concedes that in the short term, electricity costs may indeed go up. But he argues the true costs are more complex than simple euros and cents.

HELLWEG: It's not only what you pay when you pay your bill. It is also what society pays to regarding the waste, regarding pollution. So that is, of course, one of the issues and the problems of nuclear power, because the secondary costs of nuclear power are tremendous.

WESTERVELT: Experts say during the nuclear phase-out, Germany will need a huge number of projects like this, and a state-of-the-art smart grid system to help deliver that energy across the country.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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